Ready the culture warriors and batten down the intellectual hatches: just days before 20-year-old Adam Lanza stormed into an elementary school and killed 20 children and 6 adults, a new, comprehensive study linking aggression to video game violence was published, raising again the specter of video-game violence as a catalyst for real-world aggression. One’s politics and personal penchant toward mass virtual-word slaughter notwithstanding, the study is worth discussion.
Co-authored by psychologists at universities in the United States, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, it is among the first to test the longer-term, cumulative effects of video game playing in any way, and the first, its authors claim, to specifically tie it to aggressive behavior. The report will appear in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
“One problem with experimental studies, however, is that they typically last less than (one hour),” the authors note. “It is not so much the immediate short-term causal effects of media violence that are of concern, but rather the cumulative long-term causal effects.”
Do video games make you violent? Well, maybe. But they certainly can turn you into this guy.
Experimenters divided a group of 70 subjects in half and asked them to play video games for 20 minutes a day for three days straight—for a study, they were told, on the effects of video game brightness. Half the group played violent video games (Condemned 2, Call of Duty 4, and The Club); the other half played nonviolent games (S3K Superbike, Dirt2, and Pure).
After each session, subjects completed two tasks. In the first, they were asked to effectively write the ending for an unfinished ambiguous story—for example, a story about the main character getting rear-ended. “What happens next?” experimenters asked. “List 20 things that the (main character) will do or say, think, and feel as the story continues.”
For the second task, subjects were told they would compete with a same-sex opponent for speed in a simple visual cue task. The loser, they were told, would receive a blast of unpleasant noise though a set of headphones, the duration and intensity of which was determined by the participant at the beginning of each contest.
As hypothesized, the story endings supplied by those exposed to violent video games gathered a more aggressive tone with each subsequent day; among those exposed to nonviolent games, they did not. Violent game players also agreed to give their opponents increasingly louder and longer noise blasts each day at the beginning of the second trial—"clearly show(ing) a cumulative effect of violent video games on hostile expectations and aggressive behaviors,” the authors concluded.
Or, at the very least, violent games are turning people into serious dicks.
Though testing subjects for three days is hardly long-term by anyone’s definition outside the lab, the results are particularly compelling in light of an Ohio State University study produced earlier this year, which adds nuance to the findings. Led by David Ewoldsen, a professor of communication, the study suggested that teamwork among violent video games players led to increased cooperative behavior afterward, not aggression.
For that study, experimenters tested 119 subjects each of whom was given a partner. The partners were divided into groups based on whether they were expected to play against each other directly ("kill their opponent more times than they were killed"), indirectly ("to beat their opponent by getting further in the game"), collaboratively ("working with their partner...to defeat computer-controlled enemies") or inconsequentially (the control group: their game playing wasn't recorded): The study found that when subjects played collaboratively, they were most likely to exhibit cooperative tendencies in a real-world game with their same partners.
I asked psychology and communication professor Brad J. Bushman, a co-author of the new study and an Ohio State colleague of Ewoldsen, about that the latter’s findings and how they fit with his new research. Bushman noted first that his subjects played alone—a crucial distinction, it seems. “I would have predicted smaller or even nonsignificant effects had they played in cooperative groups,” he said in an email.
If we can take one-on-one cooperation to be the opposite of one-on-one aggression (and I think, within these constraints, we can), it colors the new findings with a bit of nuance, which Bushman here admits. Had Bushman's subjects played in groups, he doesn't expect that the aggressive behaviors and expectations they exhibited would have accumulated the way they did.
Every time there is a mass shooting in America—particularly in cases like the recent Sandy Hook tragedy, in which the killer, Adam Lanza, was part of the estimated 80 percent of Americans of his age who regularly play video games—violence in media, particularly gaming, is paraded about as a bogeyman. In recent years, undoubtedly because that dead horse, beaten always on cue, has been so thoroughly pulped, the dialogue seems to have shifted. Among the media-savvy, such discussions feel hopelessly quaint. They feel tired, not worth having.
The shift was probably also due, in part, to the overall decline in the broader violence that plagued the 1980s and 90s. Writing about incidents like the massacre at Columbine High School, author and futurist hero Steven Johnson pointed out in his 2005 book Everything Bad is Good For You that violent crimes in America’s schools had been halved between 1992 and 2002. “It is theoretically possible that violent media has nevertheless been provoking violent acts throughout that period,” he wrote, “but those effects have been masked by the other, pacifying forces at work in society: better policing, higher incarceration rates, or low unemployment.”
In the immediate aftermath of the Aurora shooting, a few timid souls, like criminal profiler Pat Brown, raised the usual specter of video games on the cable news media. But the sophisticates saw her coming. Perhaps more notable than Brown’s squawking was the fusillade that awaited whomever had the temerity to broach the subject first. As author Stephen Marche noted in a New York Times op-ed, “the parochial debates from the ’90s about whether rap and video games led to increases in the murder rate have been firmly, and happily, filed in the dustbin of intellectual history.” However, he added, “A new cliché has taken hold, though, one that insists on an absolute separation between violent art and real violence.” In the wake of Sandy Hook, the debate has begun again, and with new vigor.
Adding fuel to the debate are moves like California's last year to ban children from playing violent video games, in a murky analog to how movie watching is regulated.
In the background, scientists like Bushman have labored, nonetheless, to forge that link. In 2002, while at Iowa State University, he and Craig A. Anderson conducted a short-term study with a much larger sample, in which 224 participants were asked to play a violent or non-violent video game. As in the new study, participants then read ambiguous story stems and were asked to predict what the main character would “do, say, think, and feel” as the story continued. As predicted, participants who played violent video games described the character as behaving and thinking more aggressively, and feeling angrier than characters described by the non-violent control group.
“Although this debate appears unresolved in the public arena, the scientific literature leaves little doubt about the effects of media violence on aggressive behavior,” they noted at the time. The two had performed a cumulative meta-analysis of media violence studies the previous year which, “revealed that by 1975 the scientific evidence was sufficient to claim that media violence exposure was positively linked to significant violent behaviors and that even short-term exposure was sufficient to cause increases in aggressive behaviors.” Evidence since then, they remarked by 2002, had grown “considerably stronger.”
Other studies to the same effect have emerged since 2002. Using magnetic resonance imaging, a study last year by the Indiana University School of Medicine detected decreased activity in the left inferior frontal lobes and anterior cingulate cortices of subjects who had been exposed to violent video games— areas of the brain linked to the regulation and cognition of aggressive behavior.
As Motherboard’s Derek Mead wrote at the time, however, it is “unknown how the change brought about by video games compares to other violent activities, like watching war movies or even playing football”—a valid critique for any such study. The study was also, a reader later noted, funded by the Center for Successful Parenting, a group that is vocally opposed to videogame violence. But the evidence in this newest study is at least worth discussing, and it's more respectable than the study Mead wrote about. The sample size (70 subjects) is fairly generous, and the methods well controlled.
Proving causality will always be difficult—not least of all, as researchers note, because it is unethical for experimenters to attempt to provoke actual acts of criminal violence in a laboratory setting. Also, it's important to note that the resilience of effects in the very long term–months and years–is still unknown. So are violent video games conditioning people to be become fundamentally more violent? That's yet to be seen, but this new study does suggest that violent video games can make you a more aggressive, cynical jerk. And that, for anyone who's listened to people screaming obscenities on Xbox Live et al, shouldn't come as much of a surprise.
Note: this article, published on December 11, was updated to reflect the events in Connecticut on December 14.
Top photo: by adventuretimewithjon /Flickr